In 1985, Mike Kenna, Ph.D., was a professor at Oklahoma State University, working on research projects for turfgrass breeding and plant genetics supported by a USGA grant. Five years later, he parlayed that experience into a career helping to spearhead the USGA’s efforts to find breakthroughs in golf course sustainability.
“I am proud of how the USGA supports the work of university researchers,” said Kenna, the USGA director of Green Section Research. “Sustainability is on the minds of many people today, but the USGA’s commitment to turfgrass began in the 1920s, when a meeting with the USGA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture resulted in the creation of the USGA Green Section.”
Green Section programs are supported by the USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research program, the world’s largest turfgrass research grants program, which has distributed $40 million to 52 universities and 28 other organizations across the country. All that hard work is paying off in other ways; since 1984, the USGA has received more than $5 million in royalties from the sale of new turfgrass cultivars. The USGA uses all the royalties to fund more university research projects. Kenna is especially encouraged to see universities working together on projects.
“Early on, it was a bit siloed, with universities working alone,” said Kenna. “But then researchers could see opportunities for collaboration. For example, the Department of Agriculture made special research grants available for universities that work together. Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and University of Florida pulled together to take advantage of the grants.
“We build sustainable programs. We issue a call for proposals from researchers and we have seen how small grants can help someone at a university turn the start of an idea into an important discovery. It also puts a face on their work. If a researcher worked with us on a small project, then moved on to another university and submitted another request, it helps them and the university because we are familiar with their work, which allows us to build lasting relationships that produce important results.”
Kenna is excited about the five-year master research partnership between the USGA and the University of Minnesota. Announced in November, the partnership aims to study and develop solutions to golf’s present and future challenges.
“This program addresses the sustainability of golf on many levels,” he said. “It will help researchers learn to collaborate on a holistic level to help the game.”
Kenna stresses the impact that changes in turfgrass can have on all inhabitants of the game’s ecosystem – from researchers and USGA agronomists to golf-course superintendents and golfers.
“Our work with universities and scientists turns ideas into progress,” Kenna said. “With even small grants, good ideas can become the projects where findings are shared with all of our partners, especially through the USGA’s Course Consulting Service, which gives golf course superintendents a set of best practices that help them maintain their courses with playability, natural resources and cost-management in mind.”
Among the new developments that Kenna says can help conserve water and other resources are: the use of cold-resistant bermudagrasses, which require less water and fertilizer, in the Northeast, and bermudagrasses with green winter color that reduce overseeding of grasses in warm-weather climates.
“For a long time, people tried to paint golf against the environment,” Kenna said. “But the USGA has always been committed to more sustainable, more playable, less costly and smarter turfgrass options that don’t require the energy and intensive labor they once did. More than that, our work with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Audubon International and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation has found that birds, fish, amphibians and mammals are thriving in the golf ecosystem. That is a direct result of the work being done through our research grants.”
Kenna also asks for buy-in from golfers on new initiatives aimed at more sensible maintenance plans for golf courses. While it is important for maintenance workers at golf facilities to understand which parts of the golf course need the most attention. It is equally important for golfers to understand that less-maintained areas should not offer as good a lie as the shot striped down the middle of the fairway.
The next time you find yourself with a gnarly lie, you can be sure the USGA is helping a team of university researchers develop the new strain of grass that just might be smarter than the player trying to get back to the fairway.
David Chmiel is manager of Members content for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.